Who knows? There might even be an improving moral to the story

by John Holbo on September 24, 2006

Maybe it’s already been done but, if not, someone could do a good ‘how Hitler conquered Europe’ skit based on the idea that at every stage he is able to advance, invisible, like a ghost, because someone points out that to take note of his presence would be a Godwin’s Law violation. The Wehrmacht rolls into Poland. The border guards frantically phone for assistance, only to be tut-tutted. ‘Ah-ah-ahh! You said ‘Hitler’!’ Stalin raves at his underlings when news of Hitler’s betrayal of their pact reaches him. ‘Impossible! That would be a Godwin’s Law violation!’

You may say I just compared Bush to Hitler and this is a strictly inaccurate analogy in a large number of respects. (I guess I can take cold comfort in that.) But I also, in effect, just compared David Broder to Stalin. Which is totally absurd. So let’s call it a wash and proceed straight to the improving moral. It is absurd to uphold moderation as a normative ideal in politics by simply refusing to acknowledge the possibility that it might have failed, in point of fact. (See Broder’s most recent pair of columns, if you haven’t already. And this Jennifer Senior book review, and this Digby review of the review.)

I used to be a practitioner of the Higher Broderism myself, in some ways. I’m trying to do better. What stings me is the conclusion of the Senior review. Two books on what’s gone on with Bush and what’s the moral of the story: “how important it is for writers to have a slight sense of humor about themselves.” Yes. A whole quadrant of possible conclusions is excluded – you just can’t get there from here – because it would be hard to get there while giving the audience a jolly ‘he said-she said’ ride, which lets them back off at the same place where they bought their ticket. And this is effectively put forth as a sufficient reason for doubting the conclusions are true.

UPDATE: It occurs to me the objection will be made that the likes of Broder are willing to consider the possibility that both sides have abandoned the middle in equal and opposite fashion. But this is really more a flirtation with political mysticism – a doctrine of the occultation of the middle, if you will – than a serious empirical proposal. (The Hidden Moderate speaks through its earthly representative: folks like Broder.) Because this view refuses to consider alternatives to itself, e.g. that moderation has failed in some other way. Either way, what we get is merely a means of preserving the accustomed rhetorical equilibrium of Broder, Senior. et al.

UPDATE the 2nd: Yes, I’m using ‘violation of Godwin’s Law’ to mean, more or less, ‘confirming instance of Godwin’s Law’. Well, I think I’m just following common usage in doing so. It’s some sort of non-exception that disproves the rule thing.

{ 56 comments }

1

Adam Kotsko 09.24.06 at 8:56 pm

When I read people (usually book reviewers) who claim that anti-Bush people are too one-sidedly anti-Bush, I just want to shake them: “What the hell is supposed to be good about this guy?!” Tellingly, they don’t have a concrete example to offer.

Sometimes the extreme view is the true one. The world does not adhere to a law of ontological moderation — brute fact is cruelly indifferent to the ends of our political spectrum and truth regularly declines to restrain itself to “somewhere in the middle.”

2

Functional 09.24.06 at 9:20 pm

I always like John Holbo’s posts. Everyone else at Crooked Timber is just too easy to decipher. But Holbo — he’ll throw in all kinds of random phrases and terms; he’ll assume a completely different narrative voice for a single sentence (or even a phrase within a single sentence), and then switch back; references will just appear with no explanation; etc., etc. Reading a Holbo post is like doing one of those mindbender puzzles with utterly obscure clues. Whether the payoff at the end is quite as satisfying at completing a puzzle is another question . . . .

The first paragraph was amusing, though, albeit completely hypothetical.

3

Functional 09.24.06 at 9:21 pm

AS completing a puzzle . . .

4

John Holbo 09.24.06 at 9:37 pm

Hmmm, yes, I am rather addicted to preserving my rhetorical disequilibrium – what George Bernard Shaw might call the ‘convexity of my attitude’. But I have resolved to write this way in a good cause – namely, against other people who are addicted to preserving their rhetorical equilibrium.

5

Ian 09.24.06 at 9:39 pm

Holbo is indeed a treasure, and I doubt he’d stoop to Polish jokes, so I don’t understand how a Polish border guard saying, “Hitler’s here! And he’s as bad as, um, you know, Hitler” is a violation of Godwin’s Law.

6

John Holbo 09.24.06 at 9:45 pm

There is a problem with uses of the phrase ‘violation of Godwin’s law’ because it is, in practice, used to mean ‘confirmation of Godwin’s law’ as formulated by Godwin – i.e. at the point someone mentions Hitler the likelihood that someone will mention Hitler has just reached 1. Confirmation. Not violation. But, in effect ‘violation of Godwin’s law’ has come to mean – ‘you are guilty of making a bad thing come true. Namely, mentioning ‘Hitler’.’ So I went with common usage.

7

John Holbo 09.24.06 at 9:47 pm

Except I shouldn’t have put scare quotes around ‘Hitler’. Because the alleged offense does not consist in drawing unseemly attention to Hitler’s NAME, after all.

8

thetruth 09.24.06 at 9:48 pm

Godwin’s Law is a gift to real Nazis everywhere. The man must be very proud.

Wouldn’t it be much preferable to come up with a conversational law stating, “People who are full of shit will no longer have attention paid to them”, and let accurate accusations of Nazism stand on merit?

9

Ian 09.24.06 at 10:09 pm

John – violation, confirmation, sure; what I meant was that the Law (as I understand it) turns not on the mention of H***** but on the comparison with him, which may give the border guard an out if the rules of the game cover that particular contingency.

10

John Holbo 09.24.06 at 10:15 pm

Ah, gotcha. We need some new law. As the degree of numeric identity of any given entity with Hitler increases, the likelihood that it is appropriate to call that entity ‘Hitler’ approaches 1. Let’s call it Holbo’s Law.

No, seriously, you are right. Godwin formulated his law in terms of Hitler comparisons. So my scenario fails, except on the looser ‘he who mentions Hitler first, loses’ formulation.

11

Gene O'Grady 09.24.06 at 10:41 pm

Uh, wasn’t the German invastion of Poland the mutually desired result of the Hitler-Stalin pact, not a violation? The violation was in the spring of 1941, not late summer 1939.

12

John Holbo 09.24.06 at 10:43 pm

Well, it wasn’t desired by the Poles.

13

John Holbo 09.24.06 at 10:45 pm

Oh, sorry. I see what you meant. No, I did not mean to imply that the invasion of Poland WAS the violation of the pact. I was sort of giving an example of how my skit might have played over a couple years.

14

Ian 09.24.06 at 11:00 pm

OK, we pedants have de-funnied the skit so successfully that it’s becoming funny again. Q: How long does it take for a rhino running at full speed to stop? A: Who cares, when it’s such an impressive sight running…

15

bi 09.24.06 at 11:03 pm

thetruth, John Holbo:

Methinks what the Free World needs is a rule that encompasses not only Hitler/Nazi comparisons, but also comparisons to Stalin, The Inquisition, Galileo, Einstein, the US Founding Fathers, … Maybe call it the fallacy of “comparison with the extremely good or extremely notorious”, or whatever it’s supposed to be in Latin.

16

ben alpers 09.24.06 at 11:46 pm

bi (#15): don’t forget comparisons with “Munich” (as in appeasement), which somehow fall under some unspecified exception to Godwin’s Law, since one regularly hears that virtually everything is “Munich” unless we preemptively blow it up.

17

Dave Menendez 09.24.06 at 11:57 pm

I think a lot of the confusion about Godwin’s Law has to do with the two possible meanings of “law”. People seem to think of it as meaning “You must not compare people to Hitler” instead of “Long arguments eventually lead to a Hitler comparison”.

There’s a good article where Godwin discusses his reasons for formulating the law.

18

rd 09.25.06 at 12:30 am

Does having a “slight sense of humor” about yourself really amount to mindless “he said, she said” journalism? Is that what Stein is calling for in the review? Surely the point is that Blumenthal and Lapham would be far more effective as anti-Bush polemicists if they weren’t so grimly determined to turn every single world development into grist for their jeriamads, no matter how trival or inapposite. (Blumenthal’s slightly deranged interpretation of Bush’s silly and goofy “submarine” joke is a nice illustration of the problem.) They’re less credible than they otherwise would be, for anyone who doesn’t already share their burning conviction that Bush is the greatest calamity since cholera. Having a “slight sense of humor” about yourself is an aid to understanding reality, not a way to avoid it. It’s what keeps you from being a crank hemmed in by your convictions of rectitude.

19

bi 09.25.06 at 12:51 am

ben alpers: Actually I’ve not heard that comparison before myself… but hey, never mind.

rd: And, presumably, Senior was following her own advice — and yours — when she wrote hat

“Otherwise reasonable people go slightly berserk on the subject of his motives; on the subject of his morality, the hinged fall off their door frames and even the stable become unglued.”

Hey, now that’s what I call funny and credible! Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha.

20

Dan Simon 09.25.06 at 1:05 am

Maybe it’s already been done but, if not, someone could do a good ‘how Hitler conquered Europe’ skit based on the idea that at every stage he is able to advance, invisible, like a ghost, because someone points out that to take note of his presence would be a Godwin’s Law violation.

Presumably the punchline is somebody saying, “all right, I’ve been holding my tongue all this time to avoid running afoul of Godwin’s law, but dammit, somebody’s got to say it: President Roosevelt really is another Hitler!”

21

John Holbo 09.25.06 at 1:27 am

You think Roosevelt really is another Hitler? Is that really so plausible?

22

bi 09.25.06 at 1:35 am

“George Washington was actually a proto-Hitler.” Discuss.

23

John Holbo 09.25.06 at 1:51 am

It’s pretty clear that dan simon and bi missed the point of the post so I’m going to return to rd, who was obliging enough to flag – however inadvertently – the point at which the train of thought in these comments leaves the rails: “Does having a “slight sense of humor” about yourself really amount to mindless “he said, she said” journalism?” No, but if you insist on having a sense of humor about yourself, and the ONLY way you know how to do it is an instinctive Broderism, then, in the event that this knee-jerk reaction is unwarranted by the actual situation you are facing, your worldly-wise sense of humor dooms you to an inability to access the relevant sort of worldly wisdom.

24

Steven Poole 09.25.06 at 2:05 am

It’s certainly true that a pose of “moderation” or “balance” is often an abrogation of intellectual responsibility.

Some reviewers of my book (which talks about this very issue in journalism towards the end) managed nonetheless to dismiss it on account of the fact that it didn’t devote exactly equal space to deconstructing the rhetoric of the “left”. That the “left” is not currently in power in Anglophone countries (depending on what you think of Tony Blair) did not seem to be a relevant data point.

25

bad Jim 09.25.06 at 2:32 am

In terms of Godwin’s law, the difference between Hitler and the Inquisition is that nobody expects… Okay, so there could well be a Python postulate.

As well might one note that, whenever a particular misbehavior is attributed to the right, a chorus will arise insisting that the left is equally, if asymmetrically guilty: when it is pointed out that the U.S. government supresses research it finds inconvenient, it is immediately countered by observing that some hippies reject genetically modified foods.

Call it the law of the imputed middle: to any action of the party in power there must be some action of the powerless which may deemed opposite and morally equal, no matter how insignificant.

26

Anatoly 09.25.06 at 3:05 am

1) We need a meta-Godwin’s law.

2) If Godwin’s Law is useful at all, it is not as a normative proscription against invoking Hitler, comparing to Hitler, etc., but, as it was originally meant to be, an empirical law born out of observation. This is why the difference between “a violation of” and “a confirming instance of” matters. Think of a heated political discussion as of a spaceship inevitably bound for a black hole. A comparison to Hitler marks the event horizon after which there’s no coming back. Curiously, from a spaceship passenger’s point of view, crossing the event horizon isn’t experienced in any special way: there’s nothing on your screens or sensors to suggest that you just crossed the boundary. With political discussions, long and careful series of double-blind experiments on Usenet helped find that elusive moment in the debate which marks the point of no return.

27

bad Jim 09.25.06 at 3:40 am

Which is of course the point Holbo was trying to make; I just wanted to see if I could make the same point more obscurely.

28

John Holbo 09.25.06 at 3:49 am

I’ll send you a postcard once I get inside the black hole and have a look around. I’ll write up the point on the back of the card.

29

abb1 09.25.06 at 3:54 am

Comparing to Hitler is silly in most cases; Hitler was more or less just a typical populist politician. What happened there didn’t happen because of Hitler; it’s just that an objective historical process pushed him to the top. Without Hitler it would’ve been some Shcmitler with pretty much the same results, there is no lack of populist demagogues.

Otoh, making analogies with Nazi Germany, various aspects of it, is a perfectly legitimate exercise, no need to hold back.

30

bi 09.25.06 at 4:41 am

OK, I admit, I was taking this chance to discuss something related… but regarding the initial point, I’ll say that comparisons with good or evil luminaries such as Hitler, da Vinci, Robespierre, etc. are usually a bad idea. (What, I actually agree with Senior on one minor point?) Of course, sometimes the comparisons are part of logically sound arguments, but given that they’re too easily confused with good old name-dropping or mud-slinging, it may be wise to forgo them altogether, and focus instead on Michael Moore’s fatness.

And reductio ad ___um — as in “big evil guy X did A, ergo A is wrong” — is simply invalid and wrong.

31

bi 09.25.06 at 5:57 am

Oh OK… on second reading I find that Holbo wasn’t actually talking about comparisons. Well, I’ll say this: On 9/11 someone was complaining about how people couldn’t stop bashing Bush and “politicizing” 9/11 even for a single day of the year. So I pointed him to Path to 9/11.

I’m willing to engage in reasoned debate with someone who’s genuinely interested in reasoned debate.

32

Charlie Whitaker 09.25.06 at 7:12 am

You said ‘Godwin’s law violation’. I take that to mean:

a breach of the customs of polite discourse through inappropriate reference to Hitler, in conformity with Godwin’s law;

not: a violation of Godwin’s law.

33

John Emerson 09.25.06 at 8:10 am

abb1: Hitler rose to dominance within a crowded right wing by outplaying all the others. Then he outplayed the left and center and became dominant. It wasn’t a random process. His mass-media populism had pre-existing models (Harvard pep rallies, Mussolini) but he added to these models, and his version was the most effective. It wasn’t really a random process.

34

Steve 09.25.06 at 8:37 am

I don’t believe this is John Holbo. I think its Belle Waring, and they are doing an experiment to see what happens when she writes with his byline.

Steve

35

Belle Waring 09.25.06 at 8:43 am

why so, steve? is the illogic so patent as to border on the feminine?

36

abb1 09.25.06 at 8:50 am

John, I’m not sure what you mean by ‘not random’. Exactly, I agree it wasn’t random. Are you saying you believe that this specific individual was uniquely essential for the events to unfold in that general direction?

37

bi 09.25.06 at 8:52 am

Charlie Whitaker: then again, I always parse “X violation” as a violation of X, not a violation of something else where the violation is in the manner of X.

(Now what will “comparison with the extremely good or extremely notorious” be in Latin? Let me see… tralatio… ex… ah heck.)

38

eweininger 09.25.06 at 8:56 am

But the middle is the truth.

And when it negatingly rejects the extremes, thus attaining synthesis, it is a higher truth.

39

Charlie Whitaker 09.25.06 at 11:03 am

Bi: perhaps the exception is allowable because Godwin’s law, unlike say Boyle’s law on the one hand or the prohibition on driving through stop signs on the other hand, is simultaneously an observation about human behaviour and a formulation that holds corrective intent?

40

Dan Simon 09.25.06 at 11:33 am

John, I grant that I wasn’t commenting on the main point of your post–only on the introductory analogy you used. But I nevertheless found it jarring enough to merit commment.

You see, as I read the first paragraph, I simply assumed that you were alluding to a national leader who has been in the news lately who really does compare in many ways with the Hitler of the 1930’s, and who has nevertheless been the subject of a disturbing amount of journalistic fawning. So when I hit the sentence that revealed you were actually talking about George W. Bush–whose Hitler-comparability ratio is positively microscopic compared to that of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s–well, I just had to complete your little parable.

41

kharris 09.25.06 at 12:17 pm

Yes, indeed, what Ben A wrote. Let’s not ignore the “stealth Godwin” in which Hitler’s name never comes up, but is clearly implied. Accusations of accommodation or appeasement cast the modern situation or individual in a different light, not as the evil, mustachioed paper hanger, but as one of the spineless, credulous suits who failed to stand against him. Even so, it’s in the spirit of Godwin.

42

Josh 09.25.06 at 1:09 pm

Comment 20 is really, really funny. I wasn’t sure if Holbo in 21 missed the joke or was extending it with deadpan irony. As for the Senior review, I was really prepared to be pissed off at her for the “he said, she said” thing, but then I remember that I can’t read Lewis Lapham anymore, and I conceded the point.

43

David 09.25.06 at 6:45 pm

I would quite happily give up any comparison of Bush’s war of aggression with those for which criminals swung by their necks at Nuremburg — but only on the condition that conservatives stop all usage of the bigoted term “Islamofascism”, as well as making any comparisons between the Iraq War and WWII in general.

44

Martin James 09.25.06 at 7:55 pm

This thread is all only of historical interest since Godwin’s law has transmuted to devil talk.

Imean both Chavez and Falwell using the term in a matter of days.

Godwin is the DEVIL!!!

45

minerva 09.25.06 at 10:08 pm

That’s what I hate about Primo Levi. No sense of humor. (Actually, that’s not true.) But there are so many times when he is JUST NOT FUNNY. Also, shouldn’t he give the other side some airtime?

46

Martin Bento 09.26.06 at 1:46 am

I’ve been attacking Godwin’s meme for years now and am glad that at least this particular position has at last found its way to the mainstream. How many were invoking Godwin when the Bush=Hitler ads were posted on Moveon in 2004? Do we now think those banned and almost universally vilified posters were prescient and wise?

Around that time I said:

“emotionally, Nazi comparisions will always seem like hyperbole because Nazism has become mythical. It is larger than life, and we see the people who did it as other kinds of people than ourselves, living in a different kind of world, although this clearly is not so. The Nazi is the secular 20th century figure that has been called on to fill the psychological space traditionally held by archetypal figures like “Satan”. This is why comparisons of actual human beings to Hitler seem like comparison of unlike entities, even though Hitler was obviously human, however much it may offend our vanity to claim him.”

Godwin’s law codified this bias, when it should be overcome.

As for the objection that Godwin’s law in an observation not intended as proscriptive, that’s false. Go read what he wrote himself as someone else here linked. He thought Nazi analogies were abused (and they are), and set out to develop a counter-meme. It was an experiment in censorship by meme propagation, and it was definitely intended to change the discourse. As we now see, the counter meme was also virulent.

abb1, the notion that history is shaped only by large-scale forces is appealing to a certain modernist project of seeking to theorize everything, but even our sense of simple dynamics no longer holds that causes must operate on the same scale as effects. To trot out the cliche, just as butterflys can cause hurricanes in China, individuals and small groups can change history. This does magnify the role of contingency in history in a way that some find uncomfortable, but the world is not constrained by a need to care for our comfort.

47

abb1 09.26.06 at 2:28 am

Individuals and small groups do have an effect, no question about that; but the point is that human history (unlike systems in the butterfly metaphor) is NOT a chaotic system. People are not molecules.

48

Jonathan Goldberg 09.26.06 at 7:57 am

” It occurs to me the objection will be made that the likes of Broder are willing to consider the possibility that both sides have abandoned the middle in equal and opposite fashion. “

I, too, am willing to consider that possibility. I reject it because it is false; Democrats are about where they were 20-odd years ago and Republicans have moved far to the right. This is documented in, for instance, Off Center by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, a book commented on in this blog.

49

Jonathan Goldberg 09.26.06 at 8:29 am

Is history chaotic? This is from from Wikipedia:

“Among the characteristics of chaotic systems, described below, is sensitivity to initial conditions (popularly referred to as the butterfly effect). As a result of this sensitivity, the behavior of systems that exhibit chaos appears to be random, even though the system is deterministic in the sense that it is well defined and contains no random parameters.”

For history to be chaotic in this sense it would first need to be governed by well defined, deterministic (albeit unknown) laws. Opinions about that vary.

But if it is, and an individual or a group obscure enough to be under everyone’s radar can have a significant effect (that is, historically significant), then history is chaotic.

50

Richard 09.26.06 at 9:01 am

Godwin’s law is an illustration of how the Hitler comparison no longer works, both through its over-use and the mythologising of the Nazis as a force of unnature, as pointed out above. He’s not the only historical figure we have to fall back on, however (even if he is the only one anyone remembers). Recently I’ve been thinking Bush is more of a Louis Napoleon: a relative nonentity with delusions of grandeur, whom Victor Hugo described as “Napoleon the little” and “the nocturnal strangler of liberty.” He also did his best to quietly, decisively move the political discourse to the right, and he was also consistently accused of mediocrity, when in fact idiocy would have been closer to the mark.

Germany’s economy and infrastructure were in tatters in 1933. By 1939 the country had been turned into a severe threat to the combined might of the great powers. It came at a terrible price, and I’m certainly not defending any part of it, but can you see Bush being involved with anything like that (irony intentional)?

51

bi 09.26.06 at 11:59 am

Martin Bento: no, they weren’t prescient and wise, and they still aren’t (even if they’re free speech). Even if Godwin’s Law doesn’t exist, you can be sure that The Right(tm) will use this as an excuse to accuse moveon.org of name-calling.

(On second thought, maybe instead of tralatio it should be collocatio… Argh! Someone help me!)

52

Martin Bento 09.26.06 at 5:17 pm

First of all, here is the link that didn’t come out in my previous comment:

http://www.kuro5hin.org/comments/2004/6/30/33339/3949/164

abb1, Although butterfly effects emerged from the study of chaotic systems, effects that are out of scale with their causes have been found to have much wider applicability, for example, to complexity theory, which is not primarily concerned with chaotic systems. The important point is positive feedback loops, which certainly do operate in human societies, can cause minor changes to have major effects.

Your assertion was “What happened there didn’t happen because of Hitler; it’s just that an objective historical process pushed him to the top. Without Hitler it would’ve been some Shcmitler with pretty much the same results,” The presupposition to this is that “objective historical processes” are causally sufficient to determine such things. Attempts to reconstruct such processes – probably the most thorough-going being Marxism – have a very poor predictive record, but if it cannot withstand the test of prediction, what is the advantage to moving to a more remote level of causation? We know Hitler did this; to say someone else could have is speculation, and what evidence is there for it? Much of the classic modernist view of history has suffered from science envy and tried to develop a picture of history that minimized the importance of human intention, countering chiefly with metaphors drawn from dynamics – history is determined by “impersonal forces”, it is a “flow”, and so on. But the picture of dynamics that underlies those metaphors has been seriously undermined.

Why was America majorly involved in Viet Nam? The proximate cause was the Tonkin fraud. There the chain of causation was clear. However, that amounts to saying “we were in Viet Nam because members of the Johnson administration wanted us there, and covertly manipulated and misrepresented events to bring it about.” Human intention, covertly expressed, is at center stage. So modern theorists seek “deeper” explanations – that is to say, explanations that are less causally direct, but less reliant on human intentions. Generally, the justification for an explanation with a weaker causal chain is that it is more general or more testable. But the problem is that the specific cause of Tonkin is decisive: the range of “objective conditions” under which America would have declared war given Tonkin is very broad, and the likelihood of America going to war absent Tonkin or something much like it looks very slim. The “deeper” causes do provide important context, and I am not saying they should be ignored, but they are not sufficient and should not therefore be privileged over more proximate explanations.

Jonathan, in terms of chaos theory, this come down to what frame of reference captures the information to render the determination intelligible. In other words, chaos theory describes processes that are fully deterministic in principle, but are indistinguishable from non-deterministic processes without complete and perfect information about initial conditions. From a frame of reference that does not capture that information, the outcome looks contingent. The comparison I’m drawing to history is that “objective condition” paradigms often do not capture enough detail of a situation to get to the point that is causally sufficient. Theories that look more specifically at who is holding power and what they intend do capture information the more general models do not, although, to be fair, the reverse is also true.

53

abb1 09.27.06 at 2:25 am

Martin, it all depends on the scope of examination. Tonkin is a small detail, at this level certainly you can see individuals making decisions, but if you look from a distance, you may notice industrial revolutions leading to predatory capitalism, leading to the WWI, leading to communist takeover in Russia, leading to fascism, leading to the WWII, leading to the cold war, etc. Something like that. Tonkin episode is an insignificant detail, I could argue that it didn’t affect history at all – not at the level I’m talking about.

54

Martin Bento 09.28.06 at 2:10 am

abb1, what I’m saying is that this concept of scale, or “scope” if you like, while intuitively appealing for its simplicity is not how the universe works, and therefore the assertion that small causes lose significance when one looks at the big picture is, as a generalizational, false. It is false even as applies to inanimate matter, but it is even more false as applied to living organisms or systems, and most false of all as applied to human societies. That is because the things that make it false, e.g., positive feedback loops, scale-free network structures, and low-cost transfer of information increase with structure. To blithely regard history as akin to a Google map, where one can zoom in on individual streets or look at continents wherein the streets vanish into insignificance is to naively ignore some of the deepest insights of contemporary dynamics. Small causes can have huge effects, and although most small causes don’t, there are always many such minor pertubations in play, so history is always being dramatically changed by minor things. And this scales up so long as there is any causal chain at all. True enough, if you contruct a history of the entire universe starting from the Big Bang, Tonkin fades into insigificance because all of human history does: nothing humans have done is causally effective at that level.

If there had been a Tonkin, but no WW1, would Viet nam and everything that has flowed in consequence have happened. For the United States not to go to war under such circumstances would require postulating away much more than WW1. OTOH, WW1 in itself implies neither Tonkin, nor Vietnam. Nor does it necessarily imply a Cold War, as the Bolshevik rebellion could have gone myriad different ways.

In the absence of WW1, would we have also had a major conflict between the US and Russia, the context of Tonkin? Marx at the end thought communism would start in Russia, though he obviously knew nothing of WW1. De Toqueville predicted before Marxism even existed that the world would eventually become alligned arouund strategic conflict between the United States and Russia. So if major minds were able to see this coming, there was obviously much more to it than WW1. But the “more” is not necessarily a function of scale. Marx’s reasoning was based on the existence of the Russian communes that existed in his day.

The notion that big effects require big causes has an appealing intellectual neatness. It tells you that the big questions will not hinge on small matters that may not be recoverable. But that is not necessarily true, however pretty it may be to think so.

55

abb1 09.28.06 at 3:26 am

It’s impossible to predict the future, but it is certainly possible and, I think, even necessary to explain the past in an analytical way – as opposed to a chain of events caused by random individuals, heroes, villians and conspiracies. Individuals, after all, are products of their historic environment too.

Maybe it’s not that obvious in politics, but think of technological progress, history of technology, engineering. When the time comes for some discovery or innovation: radio, telephone, conveyor belt assembly line or whatever – the thing just gets invented, and it’s often invented independently and almost simultaneously by several different individuals. Is there any doubt that if the officially recognized inventor died in his/her childhood, his discovery would’ve been made around the same time by someone else?

I think it’s very similar with the politics.

56

Martin Bento 09.28.06 at 5:00 am

abb1, technological development is a much simpler case than politics because, save in times of societal collaspe, it progresses incrementally in the same general direction, and because it is based directly on science, which, for example, restricts it to the repeatable and not the unique, whereas political history is never repeatable in any but very general ways. Explaining history in what you term an analytic way is only desirable if said explanations are valid. Otherwise, we are fooling ourselves.

However, I don’t mean to toss general explanations overboard completely. Even though small-scale contingencies remain frequently decisive, the larger scale provides the context.

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